The Gonzaga Bulldogs are no longer judged as a mid-major. Mark Few and company have been so successful for so long that the days of being considered a Cinderella story are long gone. In “Cindy’s” place are annual expectations that can often reach a fever pitch.
For good reason, too. The Bulldogs haven’t missed the NCAA Tournament since the 1997-98 season, have sent numerous players to the NBA, and have as much of a stranglehold on West Coast basketball as any other team playing in a major conference.
With those consistently high expectations comes the opportunity to have “disappointing” seasons. Furthermore, since Gonzaga is now widely considered a power program competing as a mid-major, we assume that the names on the back on the uniform don’t matter. But they do… a lot.
There does tend to be a recurring theme with each good-to-great Gonzaga team. For nearly every top-25 team the school produces, it also has a player or two who are special enough to help the Bulldogs reach such crazy heights. From Adam Morrison to Jeremy Pargo to Kelly Olynyk to Kyle Wiltjer, every Few-led team has one or two stars who keep the ship moving in the right direction.
So, yes, the names on the back of the Gonzaga uniform do matter.
Heading into the 2016-17 season, it will be interesting to see how the Zags do. Few is losing key players from last year’s team — Wiltjer, Domantas Sabonis, Kyle Dranginis — and a lot of voids need to be filled. After all, the team is not only losing its top scorer and top rebounder, but Wiltjer and Sabonis were special types of basketball players who won’t be easily replaced.
This is like a sequel in a movie franchise minus all of the original stars, but giving a background character the starring role moving forward. Basically, it’s like Tremors 3. Sorry, Michael Gross. You are no Kevin Bacon or Fred Ward. Then again, to be fair, who is?
Don’t get it twisted, though. Someone will need to replace those former standouts if Gonzaga wants to continue its near two-decade run of success.
This is where a player like Josh Perkins comes in. And, no, it is not a guarantee he will fill those guys’ shoes, nor does he have to be a transcendent star, but he will most certainly need to be closer to a high-impact player than the role player he was in his first two seasons with the program.
He simply needs to be better, even if only in the Pargo style; you’ll recall that Pargo succeeded by being a good but not great player while getting help from Austin Daye one season or Josh Heytvelt and Daye in another.
As a redshirt freshman, Perkins averaged 10.1 points, 4.1 assists, and 3.3 rebounds per game, solid but obviously unspectacular numbers. That being said, his improvement on the hardwood can’t be defined by stats but rather by how he controlled his game.
While first infamous for his flashy passing, Perkins moved away from those attempts at brilliance as the season went on, in order to limit his turnovers. The same player who would have four six-turnover games early in the season would creep that number back down to two turnovers per game by the year’s end.
Perkins must substantially improve his game. Gonzaga will bring in a batch of fresh faces to the program, so Few will need Perkins to add veteran stability to the lineup. However the 6-3 guard goes about doing it will be up to him.
What we do know for sure is that Perkins has improved since landing with the Bulldogs. He went from redshirt to ho-hum bench player to important role guy last season. Now fresh questions are emerging. As the Zags go through a massive roster turnover, can Perkins step up his game to yet another level?
Few certainly doesn’t need him to be Kevin Bacon, but if he can mange to be Fred Ward, the Bulldogs shouldn’t miss a beat.